Thursday 21 February 2019

Surah Yusuf (Joseph): Exegesis of the 12th Chapter of the Holy Quran - Part I (Verses 1-22)

Sūrat Yūsuf  is the twelfth surah with 111 ayahs with two rukus, part of the 12th-13th Juzʼ  of the Holy Qur'an.

Since this surah is based on the life story of Prophet Yusuf (Joseph, peace be upon him) and chronologically describes the events of his life, we have divided the exegesis of the surah in four parts as already described in the Overview posted earlier. In this post, we will deliberated first 22 ayahs / ayats of the surah which deal with the early life of young Yusuf, his dream and its interpretation by his father, Ya'ya (Biblical Jacob) who himself was a prophet of Allah. And later the jealousy f his brothers towards him and throwing him into a well with the intention of murdering him and telling their father that Yusuf had been eaten away by  a wolf. However, Allah saved Yusuf by a passing caravan and adopted by a rich merchant, in whose house he grew u to be a young handsome young man that put him in great trouble.

Before the exegesis of the verses 1-22 is deliberated upon, here some information about the Prophet Ya'qub (Jacob, peace be upon him) and his family as found in the earlier scriptures:
  • Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel (the favorite of Jacob's two wives, and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin), lived in the land of Canaan with ten half-brothers, one full brother, and at least one half-sister. He was Rachel's firstborn and Jacob's eleventh son. Of all the sons, Joseph was preferred by his father, and this is represented by a "long coat of many colors (In the Hebrew Bible, the coat of many colors is the name for the garment that Joseph owned, which was given to him by his father, Jacob.)".
  • Canaan was a Semitic-speaking region in the Ancient Near East during the late 2nd millennium BC. The name Canaan appears throughout the Bible, where it corresponds to the Levant, in particular to the areas of the Southern Levant that provide the main setting of the narrative of the Bible: i.e., the area of Phoenicia, Philistia, Israel, and other nations.
  • The composition of the story can be dated to the period between the 7th century BCE and the third quarter of the 5th century BCE, which is roughly the period to which scholars date the Book of Genesis.
Let us now read the translation and exegesis in English of the first part (For Arabic Text, please refer to the references given below):

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ 
"In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful"

الٓر تِلْكَ ءَايَٰتُ ٱلْكِتَٰبِ ٱلْمُبِينِ
*Alif, Lam, Ra. These are the verses of the clear Book. (1) 

*The Muqaṭṭaʿāt (Arabic: حُرُوف مُقَطَّعَات‎ ḥurūf muqaṭṭaʿāt, "mysterious letters") are combinations of between one and five Arabic letters figuring at the beginning of 29 out of the 114 chapters (surahs) of the Quran just after the opening Bismillāh, thus also called the or occasionally called Fawatih (openers). Alif, Lam, Ra here in this surah are also part of these letters, the meaning of which is not known.
We have revealed it as a Recitation in Arabic that you may fully understand (2) 
In verse 2 above, the Arabic word Quran “to read” is originally the infinitive form of the verb qara. When the infinitive form of a verb in Arabic is used as a name, it implies that that thing or person possesses the characteristics in their perfection. This Book has been named Quran to indicate that it is meant to be read by all and sundry and is to be read often and over and over again. As for the second part of the ayat above, this does not mean that this Book has been sent down exclusively for the Arabs. What it means is only this: "Of all the people, O Arabs, you should understand the excellences of the Qur'an, which are a sure proof of its being Divine Revelation, for it is in your own language and you have no excuse to put forward that it is in a foreign language which you do not understand. "
We relate to you, [O Muhammad], the best of stories in what We have revealed to you of this Qur'an although you were, before it, among the unaware. (3) 
The verse 3 above is important to understand: This verse specifically revealed to impress indirectly on the unbelievers of Makkah the fact that the Messenger (ﷺ) did not know anything about the story of the settlement of the Israelites in Egypt, but was being informed of this by revelation from Allah. This introduction was necessary because the disbelievers had put an abrupt question concerning this matter in order to expose the Prophet (ﷺ) by this test. The answer is to this effect: Tell them, O Muhammad (ﷺ), that, though you did not know anything about the settlement of the Israelites in Egypt before this, you have now received a revelation about this from Us.
[Of these stories mention] when Joseph said to his father, "O my father, indeed I have seen [in a dream] eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me." (4) He said, "O my son, do not relate your vision to your brothers or they will contrive against you a plan. Indeed Satan, to man, is a manifest enemy. (5) 
Verse 5: As the meanings of the dream were quite obvious, Prophet Ya'qub (Jacob, peace be upon him) had a genuine fear that Yusuf’s ten step brothers would become all the more envious of him when they would hear this. So he warned his righteous son not to mention his dream to his brothers, for he knew that those sons of his did not bear the moral character worthy of the sons of a Prophet, and, therefore they were up to any evil design against him out of mere envy. As regards to the dream, the sun in it was Prophet Jacob (peace be upon him), the moon his wife, Prophet Yusuf’s step mother, and the eleven stars were his eleven brothers.
(As you have seen in the dream), so will your Lord choose you (for His task) and will impart to you the comprehension of the deeper meaning of things and will bestow the full measure of His favour upon you and upon the house of Ya'qub even as He earlier bestowed it in full measure upon your forefathers, Ibraheem (Abraham) and Ishaq (Isaac). Surely your Lord is All- Knowing, All-Wise. (6) 
The Choosing by the Lord here means “Blessing him with Prophethood.” The Arabic words of the text do not mean merely “the interpretation of dreams”, as has been generally understood. These are comprehensive and imply also this: Allah will bless you with the full understanding of the problems of life and their solutions and will give you the insight to reach at the reality of every matter.

Here it should be noted that the response of Prophet Ya'qub to the dream of Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon them), according to the Bible and the Talmud, are quite different from this: “And he told it to his father, and to his brethren: and his father rebuked him, and said unto him, What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?” (Gen. 37: 10). Even a little thinking will help one to arrive at the conclusion that his reaction as narrated in the Qur'an is worthy of the high character of Prophet Ya'qub and not the one found in the Bible and the Talmud. For Prophet Yusuf had not expressed any personal ambition of his but merely narrated his dream. If the dream was a true one, and it is obvious that Prophet Ya'qub interpreted it, believing it to be true, there was no reason why he should rebuke his own son, for it meant that it was the will of Allah and no his own ambition that he should one day rise to a high rank. Can then one expect from any reasonable person, not to mention a Prophet, that he would take it ill and rebuke the one who dreamed such a dream? And can there ever be such a noble father who would say bitter and stinging things to his own son for the sin of telling him a true dream, prophesying his future greatness?
Certainly were there in Joseph and his brothers signs for those who ask, (7) When they said, "Yusuf and his brother are more beloved to our father than we, while we are a clan. Indeed, our father is in clear error. (8) 
Yusuf's brother mentioned in verse 8 refers to Benjamin. He was the real younger brother of Prophet Yusuf, and was his junior by many years. Their mother had died at the birth of Benjamin. That is why Prophet Ya'qub paid special attention to these two motherless children. Besides, Yusuf was the only son, in whom he had discerned signs of righteousness and capabilities. Accordingly, when Prophet Yusuf narrated his dream to him, he was all the more convinced of his future greatness, and was perturbed at the idea lest his brothers conspired against him out of envy, if they came to know of his dream, which was self explanatory. For Prophet Ya'qub knew that his other ten sons were not of the right type, and this was proved by the subsequent events. Therefore, naturally he was not happy with them. It is, however, strange that the Bible gives a different reason for the envy his brothers bore against Prophet Yusuf. They were filled with envy against him because Yusuf gave unto his father their evil report.

In order to grasp the full significance of the grievance the ten sons had against their father for neglecting them, we should keep in view the conditions of the clannish life. As there was no established state, each clan led its own independent life side by side with other clans. It is obvious that the power of the head of the clan depended entirely on the number of sons and grandsons, and brothers and nephews he had to defend the life, honor and property of the family. Therefore, the one leading the clannish life naturally paid more attention to his own grown up sons, etc., than to children and women of the family. As Prophet Ya'qub was leading clannish life, these sons of his expected a preferential treatment from him, but the Prophet thought otherwise. So they remarked: Truly our father seems to have lost his balance of mind; otherwise he could not have neglected us, and loved our two younger brothers more than us, for we are strong young men and can stand him in good stead at the time of need while these youngsters are useless as they themselves stand in need of protection.

‘Jubb Yussef’ - said to be the Well of Prophet Yusuf: Located near Kibbutz Amiad in the Galilee. It consists of a dug-out pit with a diameter of one meter and depth of about four meters, roofed by a cupola supported by four pillars, and surrounded by ancient graves.[Photo/Source]

Thus the ten brothers plotted to kill Prophet Yusuf as as to gain chieftain. However, one of them was not in favour of killing and proposed to throw Prophet Yusuf in some well, from where he may be picked up by passing caravans and thus they would get rid of him.

Kill Joseph or cast him out to [another] land; the countenance of your father will [then] be only for you, and you will be after that a righteous people." (9) Said a speaker among them, "Do not kill Joseph but throw him into the bottom of the well; some travelers will pick him up - if you would do [something]." (10)
So they approached their father and to send Prophet Yusuf with them to stand guard to them while they played around: 
They said, "O our father, why do you not entrust us with Joseph while indeed, we are to him sincere counselors? (11) Send him with us tomorrow that he may eat well and play. And indeed, we will be his guardians. (12)
In the verse 12, the Quran differs from the Bible and the Talmud, according to which it was not the brothers, who requested their father to send Joseph with them but Prophet Jacob himself sent him with an errand to Shechem, where they were feeding their father’s flocks. Obviously the version of the Quran is more realistic, for Prophet Jacob could never have thought of sending his beloved son with them because he knew it well that they were envious of him, and sending him there would have been sending Joseph deliberately into the jaws of death. 
[Jacob] said, "Indeed, it saddens me that you should take him, and I fear that a wolf would eat him while you are of him unaware." (13) They said, "If a wolf should eat him while we are a [strong] clan, indeed, we would then be losers." (14) So when they took him [out] and agreed to put him into the bottom of the well... But We inspired to him, "You will surely inform them [someday] about this affair of theirs while they do not perceive [your identity]." (15)
Skeptical of his te4n sens' hidden desires to harm Yusuf, the father was very reluctant to let Yusuf go, but ultimately gave in to his sons. When his brothers threw up in the well, he received a Divine revelation of him being saved and meeting his brothers again one day when they will not be able to recognise him.

There is no mention of this in the Bible and the Talmud that Allah sent a revelation to comfort Prophet Joseph at that time of his affliction. On the contrary, the Talmud says that when he was thrown into the well, Prophet Joseph wept and cried aloud and implored his brothers for mercy, as if he was no better than any other lad of the desert, who would weep and cry if he were to be thrown into a well. But the picture the Quran depicts is that of a young man, who is destined to play the part of a great personality in history. 
And they came to their father at night, weeping. (16) They said, "O our father, indeed we went racing each other and left Joseph with our possessions, and a wolf ate him. But you would not believe us, even if we were truthful." (17) 
As feared to lose his son at the hands of his brothers,  the  band of evil minded brothers came lamenting that Yusuf had been attacked by a wolf and killed. As a "proof" they had brought back Yusuf's shirt with blood stains on it.

وَجَآءُو عَلَىٰ قَمِيصِهِۦ بِدَمٍ كَذِبٍ قَالَ بَلْ سَوَّلَتْ لَكُمْ أَنفُسُكُمْ أَمْرًا فَصَبْرٌ جَمِيلٌ وَٱللَّهُ ٱلْمُسْتَعَانُ عَلَىٰ مَا تَصِفُونَ
And they brought Yusuf's shirt, stained with false blood. Seeing this their father exclaimed: "Nay (this is not true); rather your evil souls have made it easy for you to commit a heinous act. So I will bear this patiently, and in good grace.13 It is Allah's help alone that I seek against your fabrication. (18)
In the verse 18, not satisfied with the cooked up story of his ten sons, Prophet Ya'yah sad that he well bear the news with "Patience in grace.". The literal meaning of “patience in grace” which implies a patience that enables one to endure all kinds of troubles and afflictions in a calm, self possessed and unemotional manner, without complaining or crying or weeping, as is worthy of great minds. Even today when someone is in distress, he is comforted by saying" May Allah bless you to bear the grief in grace."

Here again, the Prophet Ya'yah’s reaction to the news of Joseph’s death, as depicted in the Quran, differs from that given in the Bible and the Talmud. According to them he was upset by the sad news and behaved like an ordinary father. The Bible says: And Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins. And mourned for his son many days. (Gen. 37: 34). And the Talmud says that at the sad news Jacob gave himself up to the abandonment of grief, and lay with his face to the ground and refused to be comforted, and cried: Some wild beast has devoured Joseph and I shall never see him more; and he mourned for Joseph for many years. (The Talmud, H. Polano, pp. 78, 79).

When we contrast this picture with the one depicted in the Quran, we clearly see that the Quranic picture is that of a dignified and great personality. He is not upset in the least at hearing the sad news of his beloved son but at once gets to the bottom of the matter, and tells the envious brothers: Your tale is false and fabricated. Then he shows good patience as a Prophet should and puts his trust in the help of Allah.
And there came a company of travelers; then they sent their water drawer, and he let down his bucket. He said, "Good news! Here is a boy." And they concealed him, [taking him] as merchandise; and Allah was knowing of what they did. (19) And they sold him for a reduced price - a few dirhams - and they were, concerning him, of those content with little. (20)
In the verses 19-20 above, the retrieval of Prophet Yusuf from the well and his being sold for a paltry amount is mentioned. 

Though the matter of the disposal of Prophet Joseph by his brothers was simple, the Bible has made this very complicated. It is obvious that the brothers threw Joseph into the well and went away. Afterwards a caravan came there and pulled him out and carried him to Egypt where they sold him. But the Bible says that the brothers cast him into a pit: then a company of Ishmaelites came there and they agreed to sell him to them. But in the meantime the Midianite merchantmen had drawn and lifted up Joseph and sold him to the Ishmaelites who brought him into Egypt. (Gen. 37: 25-28). But the authors of the Bible forget this sale transaction and further on in v. 36 say that Prophet Joseph was sold in Egypt by the Midianites and not by the Ishmaelites as stated in v. 28. But the Talmudic version of the matter is a little different from this. It says that the Midianites drew Joseph up from the pit and carried him along with them. As they passed by, the sons of Jacob saw Joseph with them and accused them of stealing their slave. At this a furious quarrel arose and they were ready to enter upon a bloody fray. But a bargain was concluded and the sons of Jacob sold their brother to the Midianites for twenty pieces of silver, who afterwards sold him to the Ishmaelites for the same amount. Then the Ishmaelites took him into Egypt and sold him there. Incidentally, it is this Talmudic version that has given rise to the tradition among some Muslims that the brothers of Joseph had sold him. But it should be noted that the Quran does not confirm this tradition.
And the one from Egypt who bought him said to his wife, "Make his residence comfortable. Perhaps he will benefit us, or we will adopt him as a son." And thus, We established Yusuf in the land that We might teach him the interpretation of events. And Allah is predominant over His affair, but most of the people do not know. (21) And when Joseph reached maturity, We gave him judgment and knowledge. And thus We reward the doers of good. (22)
Now we come to the last two verses of the Part I. Here again there are some differences between the earlier scriptures and the Islamic traditions.
  • According to the Bible te man who purchased Yusuf, his name Potiphar. But the Quran mentions him merely by the title (Al-Aziz). As the Quran uses the same title for Prophet Yusuf, when he rose to a high rank, it appears that the person held a high office or rank in Egypt, for the word Aziz stands for a powerful person who cannot be opposed and disobeyed. The Bible and the Talmud say that he was an officer of Pharaoh’s body guards and captain of the guard. And according to a tradition from Ibn Abbas, related by Ibn Jarir, he was the officer of the royal treasury.
  • According to the Talmud the name of his wife was Zuleikha and she is known by the same name in the Muslim traditions. As regards to the other tradition among the Muslims that Prophet Yusuf married her afterwards, it is neither based on the Quran nor on the history of the Israelites. And the fact is that it is below the dignity of a Prophet to have married such a woman about whom he had personal knowledge that she was of a bad character. And this opinion is confirmed by this general statement of the Quran: Women of bad character are for men of bad character and men of bad character are for women of bad character. And the women of pure character are for men of pure character, and the men of pure character for the women of pure character. (Surah An-Noor, Ayat 26).
  • The fact that Potiphar had a very high opinion of Prophet Yusuf from the very beginning is also confirmed by the Talmud and the Bible. The Talmud says that at this time Joseph was about eighteen years of age (and) Potiphar was very favorably impressed with his bearing and appearance. So he came to the conclusion that he belonged to some noble family and had been made a slave by the force of adverse circumstances. When the Midianites carried him before Potiphar, he said: He does not look like a slave and I fear he has been stolen from his country and his home. That is why Potiphar did not treat him like a slave, but put him in charge of his house and all his possessions. Likewise the Bible says: And he left all that he had in Joseph’s hand; and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he did eat. (Gen. 39: 6).
  • This verse alludes to the special training Prophet Yusuf needed at that time for the performance of the duties of the high rank to which he was destined to rise. Up to that time, he had been brought up in the desert, under the environment of a semi nomadic life of a shepherd. There was neither any settled state in Canaan and Northern Arabia nor had there been any appreciable progress in culture and civilization, for it was inhabited by different independent clans with no settled government. Thus it is obvious that the training that Prophet Joseph had received in Canaan, had equipped him with the good characteristics of nomadic life coupled with the qualities of God worship and high morality of the family of Prophet Abraham. But this was not enough to enable him to direct the affairs of Egypt, which was at that time one of the most cultured and civilized countries of the known world and required a different experience and training for the conduct of its affairs. The All Powerful Allah made arrangements for this training and sent him to the house of an officer of a very high rank in Egypt, who entrusted him with full powers over his house and estate. This enabled him to develop all those latent abilities that were needed to fulfill his destiny, and he gained the experience that was required for the efficient conduct of the affairs of the kingdom of Egypt in the years to come.
The Part II will dwell on the details of lustful desires of Zuleikha over Prophet Yusuf and despite being proven innocent, he landed up in the prison, which will be the Part III of our future posts.

You may now like to listen to Arabic recitation of Sūrat Yūsuf  with English subtitles:

You may refer to our post "114 Chapters (Sūrahs) of the Holy Qur'an" for translation, meaning and summary of other chapters (Though not complete but building up from 30th Part backwards for chapters in 30th Part are shorter and easier to understand). 

Photo | References1 |  2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 |
An effort has been made to gather explanation of the surahs of the Holy Qur'an from authentic souses and then present a least possible condensed explanation of the surah. However, those wanting detailed explanations and tafsir (exegesis), may refer to sites the references of which are given above.

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